Never having been caught in a hurricane, I can only hazard a guess at what it must be like. But after two hours in the company of Appean Sharma, who runs the Costcutter store in Newmarket Green, Eltham, south east London, I feel I’m a step closer.
In those 120 minutes, Appean went through a range of identities - local retailer, entrepreneur, crimefighter, father figure, inspirational speaker - before my eyes.
In the 23 years he has run his store, in what is acknowledged as one of the most racist areas in England, Appean has come back from the brink of quitting to start on an expensive and energy-sapping journey to turn his store and the shopping parade on which it is situated into a viable, respected and integral part of the local community.
He says: “When I started at the store, it was an old Co-op outlet that had been left to go to ruins. It was rat-infested and all the fridges and chillers were leaking. I never thought I’d be in the situation I’m in today where I own 80% of the parade. In the 1980s the area was in an awful state - money was tight, people were unemployed, the older people were used to shopping elsewhere. It was also fair to say that a lot of people in the area spent some time in the nearby Belmarsh Prison. If people couldn’t buy something, they would steal it, and to get one over the local store owner was seen as a sport.”
If the 1980s were a hard starting point for Appean the mid 1990s nearly broke him. He explains: “This area was rife with drugs and I attended a lot of funerals around that time. Drugs are still a problem but it’s not as bad as it was. It goes in peaks and troughs. You only need one person to start taking drugs and it soon spreads. “The situation became so bad that I would have loved to have closed the store, but I had invested too much time and money to give up and leave. We had problems with shoplifting and abuse in the store and it really got bad for a five-year period in the 1990s. I have a manager here who has been with me in some form of employment since she was 13. She is 30 now, and she was often left petrified by what she had to deal with during that time.”
In total, Appean has spent nearly £500,000 on his store and the shopping parade, expanding, refurbishing and making it a safer place for shoppers and workers. REVITALISING THE PARADE
However, Appean’s mission to make the area more viable and safer hasn’t come without a lot of hard work behind the scenes. He explains: “Getting to where I am today has been a long, hard struggle. I’ve had to deal with the bureaucracy of local planning, delays in building works and raising of funds.”
This hard work led to him taking over the local post office five years ago, which is now a part of his store, and also the local bookmakers, which he moved and refurbished.
He continues: “My next project is a former Mini Mart store, which I noticed was going downhill, so I bought it off the landlord and hope to turn it into a Greggs-type outlet but with a pizza takeaway service. I also plan to start a breakfast club for local schoolchildren with sponsorship from the local council. After that I plan to open a new hairdressers here. I know what components are needed here and I’m going to bring them.”
At one point, 80% of the stores here were occupied but at its worst this fell to only 40%. He says: “The worst thing you can see on a shopping parade is boarded-up stores. I realised that unless I did something positive soon, my store would be the only one left.”
Appean’s drive to bring the best out of the shopping parade was met with initial suspicion by wary local residents. He explains: “Originally, there was a problem because the locals thought I was being greedy when I took over these units, especially the post office, because they thought I would know too much about them when they were trying to claim for things I knew they couldn’t. However, now I have been the subpostmaster for five years and I have enhanced the service, they feel more comfortable. Now, rather than seeing it as me taking over, they realise I am investing here for the good of the community.”
It’s this driven and selfless approach that also led Appean to push for the installation of CCTV cameras on the parade.
He says: “At one point even the local buses refused to drive through the estate as attacks were being made on their personnel. I took it upon myself to put together a campaign to get the council to install much needed external CCTV on the square opposite the stores. It took a lot of canvassing and time but it eventually paid off and since the cameras have been installed the reaction from the local people has been great and they have told me they feel a lot safer.”
TALKING IT THROUGH
Sponsorship of local events and school football teams, and putting on barbecues are also all part of this retailer’s armoury in winning over the locals.
However, Appean admits there are still problems in the area. Although drug use has fallen away slightly, anti-social behaviour is still rife. It’s the good knowledge of local people and their backgrounds, which he has built up over the 23 years he’s been on the parade, that allows Appean to stay on top of incidents in and around the shops.
He comments: “You get to know the kids in the area and what makes them tick. For example, I saw a kid smashing up a bus shelter and I went out to talk to him because I knew from speaking to him before that he wanted to go into the army. I said that there was no way that would happen if I called the police out and he got a criminal record. He was in tears after he thought about this and has been quiet ever since.”
Appean believes a zero tolerance approach can work but he also thinks you have to look at each situation separately and work within and with the community to sort things out. “I do represent some sort of authority as a store owner but you also have to bring a human face to it. You have to be inclusive, not exclusive. At the end of the day, they are going to be my customers now and in the future, so you have to be able to get on with them,” he says. “All the idiots and troublemakers I used to bar are now my best customers but only because I have built up their trust and tried to help them. It’s in my interest to look after them and build a good relationship with them.”
A healthy relationship with the local police also helps, and the local beat officer can often be found enjoying a hot drink in the store.
Appean says: “I can’t take the money that my stores generate with me when I go. I’m doing all this work for the community, and I think they understand that now. No longer do they see the store as the one run by ‘that Paki’. Now it’s their store and I’m Appean. They even boast how good it is to other people, which is a great feeling.”